If you ask those I work with or mentor what my distinctive personal qualities are, I suspect that on the short list you might find empathy. For instance, I often reach out to work colleagues if I know that they face significant challenges, if their skills aren’t being fully utilized, if they’re not appreciated as much as they should be, if someone on their team has resigned, or on the positive side if they’ve been doing great work.
It might surprise such people to learn that I am not a naturally empathetic person. Another of my distinctive qualities is a sense of perspective, which in my case is connected with an attitude of distance or detachment. As I’ve worked more closely with people over the last ten years of my career, I’ve had to push myself to reach out, to listen, to empathize. By counteracting one of my natural tendencies, I’ve turned empathy into something approaching the “second nature” of an excellence of character.
As Aristotle says in Book Two of the Nicomachean Ethics:
We must consider the things towards which we ourselves also are easily carried away; for some of us tend to one thing, some to another; and this will be recognizable from the pleasure and the pain we feel. We must drag ourselves away to the contrary extreme; for we shall get into the intermediate state by drawing well away from error, as people do in straightening sticks that are bent.
Although I don’t want to over-simplify what’s involved in cultivating empathy or other character strengths, in my experience much of it is simply stopping to think about other people. “She’s been working so hard on this project, I wonder how she’s holding up?” “So-and-so just resigned, I should see how his teammates are doing.” “I’ve really been impressed by how she’s handled interactions with this client, I think I’ll let her manager know.” And so on. Such questions naturally lead to being curious about others, to caring about them, and to reaching out to them. By building up a practice of such thoughts and actions, I’ve become much more empathetic over time.
In future posts I’ll explore in greater depth the topic of cultivating various virtues, with insights from thinkers as varied as Aristotle, Confucius, Ben Franklin, and positive psychologists like Martin Seligman and Chris Peterson.